Sunday, February 26, 2017

La La Land and the Search for Something Real

For the record, I loved "La La Land." It's a touching, masterfully directed story of two Hollywood artists/dreamers searching for success and finding each other. 
It's a unique and unlikely tip of the top hat to the great movie musicals, with terrific songs that stick in your head for days and totally engaging performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

But just under the surface of this bright, if bittersweet love story, there is of course a dark, ugly underbelly that is the real Hollywood.

"La La Land" is a modern, less overtly cynical companion to "The Day of the Locust," Nathanel West's brilliant but pitch-black novel on Hollywood and its inhabitants. You know, the dreamers, the losers, the locusts, those sad, grotesque hangers-on who think their life has meaning because they once met Gosling's caterer at a party.

Watching "La La Land" conjured up my own decidedly mixed feelings about Hollywood, where dreams are realized but more often shattered. While you watch everyone celebrating tonight at the Academy Awards, remember that while everyone inside the venue is one of the fortunate ones who had the right amount of talent and/or luck to make it, for every one of these shining stars, there are literally millions of others who never shined. Who never left earth.

They're the ones who still stand outside desperately trying to see, touch or make a connection with one of their favorite celebrities, as if they're gods. And there are even more millions who gave up their dream entirely and went back to wherever they came from.

Hollywood is both a magical place that celebrates creativity and inclusion, and a lost hell, a total facade where, as "La La Land" rightly notes, people worship everything but value nothing. And yet the appeal is undeniable. Because we're all dreamers to one extent or another.

La La Land Destroyed America's Finest Novelist

When I saw "La La land," it immediately reminded me of West's novel, and the underrated 1975 film version of his haunting story. And it reminded me of all the great novelists of the 20th century who sold out and "went Hollywood" after their books stopped selling.

Not at all unlike what Gosling's "La La Land" character, a pianist and jazz purist, did when he agreed to join a band that played a bizarre hybrid of jazz and pop that he didn't personally like and knew was crap. 

It's not only tragic, and eerily coincidental, it's also fitting that West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, two of America's most gifted novelists, died on the same weekend in 1940, and that they both died in California. West, reportedly distraught over hearing of his friend Fitzgerald's death by heart attack in Los Angeles, died in an automobile accident near El Centro after ignoring a stop sign.

Sadly, Fitzgerald and West, both of whom came to Los Angeles along with many other accomplished writers at various times throughout the past century to hack out screenplays for quick cash after their novels stopped paying the bills, both died young and somewhat disillusioned. Los Angeles will do that to you. 

"West and Fitzgerald were both writers of a conscience," Edmund Wilson, a writer himself and longtime close friend of Fitzgerald's, once wrote. "Their failures may certainly be laid partly to Hollywood, with its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted."

Some things never change. Though Wilson died in 1972, I'm convinced he would not only say the same thing about Hollywood today, he would undoubtedly find plenty of new and perhaps even more damning things to say. I think West wold embrace "La La Land" for its ambiguous message about Hollywood, fame, and selling out.

He'd surely conclude that writers and other good people still come to Los Angeles to die, that so much of the real talent in Hollywood is still squandered, and that there remains in that Land of the Lost a locust-like swarm of grotesque wannabes and shrill apologists in chronic denial about the place in which they live and what it does to people.

Los Angeles, which for me is synonymous with Hollywood and vice versa, remains a place that is both wonderful and dismal. While there are of course many truly kind, decent people in Los Angeles, the city is largely defined by fake sentiment and blind ambition. It's a place where nothing feels completely real, a place where style suffocates substance, where people are at once perpetually depressed and suicidal and obsessed with health and youth, a place where nothings think they're gods.

In L.A., You're Not Allowed to Age

Los Angeles remains a company town, a show-biz town, a superficial non-city where plastic surgeons are on seemingly every block and even many of its non-famous inhabitants enjoy a bizarre sense of self-importance simply because they drive the same choked freeways as celebrities. 

Many Los Angelenos who are in no way connected with show business seem to feel this inexplicable validation of their very existence just because they met Emma Stone's personal trainer at the post office or know the guy who washes Hugh Jackman's dog.

Of course, our entire culture, not just Los Angeles, has become fame-obsessed. The locusts, as West called them in "The Day of the Locust," are now everywhere. But those who are truly obsessed with both being famous and being near the famous and even semi-famous eventually find their way to L.A. – like bees to a pretty, poisonous flower. 

In Los Angeles, the surreal Mecca of Celebrity, anyone who is even remotely recognizable quickly becomes dangerously delusional and addicted to themselves. It's a sickness for which the only cures are either death or cancellation – which, in Los Angeles, have the same meaning.

i've known my share of famous and semi-famous people - actors, athletes, musicians. Even the best of the bunch have that release valve whenever they need it. That is, if life gets too painstaking, too heavy, too real, they can always resort or recert to "celebrity" mode. That's where they are lifted off th pavement ever so slightly, just enough to let everyone around them, even those who like them for who they really are,  that they are celebrities and must be treated accordingly.

Unlike "La La Land," where both lead characters are generally decent people, "The Day of The Locust" is inhabited mostly by monsters. West eloquently tells that deeply haunting tale of a group of dreamers, has-beens and lost souls all living on the fringes of the movie biz. 

The story's narrator, Tod Hackett, a smart and personable if benign young observer of the dysfunctional characters surrounding him – not unlike Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," only perhaps not quite as strong in character – comes to Los Angeles in hopes of making it as a scenic artist. Instead, he becomes entangled in a web of lies and fears spun by his superficial new "friends."

Tod develops an unhealthy attachment to Faye Greener, a beautiful, corrupt wannabe starlet who's "kept" by a pitiful, decent simpleton named Homer Simpson. D'oh, yes, that is indeed where Matt Groening got the name for the famous cartoon dad in "The Simpsons". 

Tod loves Faye, or thinks he does, but Faye, a prostitute by any definition of the word, has stars in her eyes and is neither interested in nor capable of real love. She isn't evil, but she is too narcissistic and insecure to be capable of true feeling. Faye is classic L.A. If you live in Los Angeles or have ever spent a substantial amount of time there and tell me you don't know at least one person who fits this description, you're lying or you took a wrong turn and have mistaken L.A. for Barstow.

But in "La La Land," Emma Stone's character, Mia, too, is a character that does exist on L.A. She's well-meaning, kind, idealistic and filled with hopes and dreams. And, lucky for her, she has genuine talent.  But she is far less corrupted by the fame she finds than almost anyone I know. Fame is the ultimate swamp. It sullies. And it destroys. It takes people out of themselves and out of reality, forever.

Meanwhile, back to "Day of the Locust," where While Tod continues to try to seduce Faye and prophetically lands a job working on a film titled "The Burning of Los Angeles," which foreshadows the book's horrific climax: an apocalyptic riot scene outside a Hollywood movie premiere at which Homer, who throughout the book is a gentle yet clearly tormented soul, witnesses the madness around him and finally snaps. 

Up to this point, Homer holds his burgeoning disdain for all the cruelty and immorality in Los Angeles close to his vest. But as the lost angels, or "locusts," begin to destroy everything in their path outside the movie house and start a raging inferno, just away from the spotlight, the rage and despair in Homer erupts, too, as he mercilessly beats a bratty little child actress who represents to him everything despicable about Hollywood.

It's a terrible, inexcusable act, of course, but Homer isn't really the monster in this compelling story. Everyone around him is – especially this little girl who is both manufactured and destroyed by Hollywood. Homer is simply killing the monster whom he sees as evil. It's very disturbing.

Significantly, Tod subsequently leaves Los Angeles, and will presumably survive. But the book really isn't as much Tod's story as it is Homer's, who may seem like a minor character, but isn't. This story is in subtle yet undeniable ways a story told from the perspective of Homer's innocence. His degeneration from a sweet simp' to a violent predator powerfully illustrates the influence Los Angeles has on everything it touches.

Fitzgerald Suffers Similar fate to His Most Famous Character

West and Fitzgerald both witnessed this story for real, in a sense, when they came out to L.A. to live among the locusts. When Fitzgerald moved there in the early 1930s, it was indeed the beginning of his slow but sure demise. 

The man who wrote some of the greatest novels of American literature, including "The Great Gatsby," of course, as well as my personal favorite, "This Side of Paradise," did complete "Tender is the Night" while in Hollywood, but soon after he delved deeper and deeper into that eternally sun-drenched Hollywood depression and sank to the bottom of a bottle.

In need of money, Fitzgerald began working as a screenwriter and fell in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (Fitzgerald's wife Zelda had by this time already sadly lost what few marbles she had left). Before his death, Fitzgerald began writing "The last Tycoon," a Hollywood novel depicting the life of a compassionate film producer who, like Jay Gatsby, rose from rags to riches. 

Fitzgerald only finished six chapters of this would-be masterpiece, though, before dying in 1940 just a few days before Christmas. His death, the untimeliness and tragedy of it, is not unlike Jay Gatsby's. A year later, the manuscript and notes for "The Last Tycoon," which even unfinished amounted to one of the great novels ever written about Hollywood, were published.

But Fitzgerald and West weren't alone. A number of great American novelists – William Faulkner, James Agee and many more – courted Hollywood for various reasons, but typically for money as opposed to any creative pursuit. It was, in virtually each case, an act of commerce, and surrender. Really, it could be said that each of these writers, like old elephants, went to Hollywood to die.

My Love/Hate Relationship with La La Land

Since reading "The Day of the Locust" in my early teens and subsequently moving to California after I graduated from high school – though by design I've never lived in L.A. – I've held a sort of morbid fascination with all things Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. 

I'm intrigued by the fact that Hollywood represents, really, the best and worst of us all. The place where things are more "real" and more "fake" than anywhere else.  A place where some of the greatest art (films and music) in the history of mankind has been created.

I've learned over the years that among those who make great films and music, even those who create lasting works of art in Hollywood with universally positive themes, only some of them ever practice the messages preached in their own art: goodness, selflessness, fidelity, humility, real love, real courage, etc. 

It's amazing how corrupt, immoral, unkind, terribly self-absorbed people can produce such pure, inspiring, life-affirming, wonderfully egalitarian art. Of course, there are good people in L.A. who have normal lives and who insist they live in a real community. 

There are lots of people in L.A. who work in the entertainment industry whose hearts and values are in the right place, and plenty more who have nothing whatsoever to do with the entertainment industry. And yes, there is real art and real literature and real crime (lots of that), and, to a limited degree, real architecture in Los Angeles.

But for me, L.A. remains a place where the concept of "real" will forever remain elusive. It's still a place where peple constangtly act like someone other than themselves, even when the cameras stop filming. L.A. is defined by the unreal, a place with no center, no true sense of community, and no soul. 

I've maintained through my 35 years living above Los Angeles (Santa Barbara) and now below (San Diego) a healthy disdain and distrust for the place. For example, I love movies, but I still generally abhor their accompanying culture and the so-called "movie industry." It's such an enduringly pretentious world, one in which virtually every inhabitant is in deep denial about one things and/or another and exalts movies to high art, when only a small handful really deserve that description.

Denial – of age, of place, of traffic, of crime, of reality, of yourself – seems a virtual prerequisite for living, or at least living happily, in L.A. 

If Nathanael West lived in today's L.A., he'd have plenty of fodder for an even more appalled sequel to "Locust." The only meaningful difference between West's Los Angeles and Los Angeles today is the traffic is about 1,000 times worse, there are thousands more plastic surgeons and wanna-be starlets/prostitutes, the Black Dahlia has become O.J., and Homer Simpson has transformed from a well-drawn, sad character in a classic novel into a literally drawn, funny character in a Fox cartoon series. 

Essentially, "La La Land" hasn't changed much since "The Day of the Locust." It remains a sometimes magical place, where, still, nothing feels quite real.